The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review

The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney (editors), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 540pp. pb. £21.99, ISBN 978-0-521-70965-1.


I should declare at the outset that I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher. This post is the first of three which review The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at length. Each post looks at around one third of the volume.


This review follows the five-fold structure of this edited volume. Each of the twenty-three contributed chapters is reviewed. In the book’s introduction the two editors sketch the intended nature of the work around two main aims. The first aim is to show how a neutral interpretative stance is impossible given the nature of the object being explored. This explains the book’s title which sets side-by-side two different designations for the object of this study. The second aim, which coheres with the first, is to demonstrate that collaborative possibilities exist between scholars who have different presuppositions.

The editors seem a little defensive regarding this work’s diversity [p.3] and it is rather disappointing to discover that only three of the twenty-three contributors are women. The editors also acknowledge the lack of coverage of advocacy approaches. This deficit seems at odds with the second aim of the work. This said the editors clearly faced a challenge in ensuring the contributions would fit the one-volume format necessitated by the series.

Part I: Text and canon

The two chapters in this short opening Part work well together in laying out the challenges posed by the subject matter: Which texts are the subject of this book? How were they transmitted and preserved? What label should they be given?

Chapter 1: Texts, titles, and translations (James C. Vanderkam, University of Notre Dame)

The outline of textual sources follows the expected survey of the nature, age and veracity of the Masoretic Text (Hebrew), the Septuagint (Greek), the Samaritan Pentateuch (Hebrew consonantal text), the Peshitta (Syriac), the Vulgate (Latin) and the Targums (Aramaic). More recent sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the questions they raise regarding the existence of minor and major textual variants are also explored. The almost universal privileging of the Masoretic Text is outlined by surveying the principles of textual criticism behind five major English language translations. This issue is crystallised in the handling of the two rival textual traditions of the book of Jeremiah—in Church tradition the longer but more recent text is preferred. This contradicts normal text-critical rules which favour age when establishing textual reliability.

Chapter 2: Collections, canons, and communities (Stephen B. Chapman, Duke University)

The second introductory chapter gives attention to the difficult question of just what the texts in question should be named. The various options—Old Testament, Hebrew Bible, First Testament, Jewish Scripture, Tanakh—are introduced at the outset so as to set out the nature of the challenge. The lack of any consensus on the meaning of terms such as scripture and canon is also rehearsed. After examining the difficulty of establishing anything approaching a consensus regarding the canon’s formation, the question of the name for these writings is considered as fully as space allows. Chapman sensitively outlines the value of the various terms as well as the potential for anachronism and sociological insensitivity. He defends the dual designation reflected in the volumes title. He also advocates faith-based scholarly reading but is aware of the possibility of sectarianism and urges the pursuit of dialogue. This chapter closes with a clear and helpful survey of the differences over which individual literary units are in the Hebrew Bible/The Old Testament (hereafter HB/OT) and the diverse order of these units in the Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions.

Part II: Historical background

The three chapters in this section have been carefully demarcated so as to provide a clear development from history via religion to text. The clarity of this threefold content is welcome at one level—at another this section seems to continually hint at interpretative complexity and challenges without ever stating them.

Chapter 3: The ancient Near Eastern context (Kenton L. Sparks, Eastern University)

This chapter opens with an explanation of how scholarship has understood the relationship between the HB/OT and Near Eastern cultures, especially those of Mesopotamia. This has changed over two centuries, largely because of the shift in consensus regarding the dating of the writing of the HB/OT. The bulk of the chapter covers five time periods over which the ancient Near Eastern context had different influences upon Israel and the HB/OT:

  • 3000‒1200 BCE
  • 1200‒1000 BCE
  • 1000‒722 BCE
  • 722‒586 BCE
  • 586‒331 BCE.

The year 1200 BCE is around the time that archaeology reveals Israelite settlement in Palestine and the Transjordan and 1000 BCE is around the date of the reigns of Saul and David. The next two key dates are known with precision: 722 BCE is the date of the Assyrian conquest of the north and 586 BCE the date of Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians. 331 BCE marks Alexander’s conquest of Palestine and its neighbours. The highlighting of 331 BCE is puzzling as the fifth section also explores the subsequent Maccabean period. Given the considerable differences between the five time periods, this chapter seems to bite off more than it can fully chew.

Chapter 4: The history of Israelite religion (Brent A. Strawn, Emory University)

Strawn opens by unpacking the paradigm shift caused by modern archaeological work—in a few decades there has been a reversal from biblical privilege to a situation in which ‘ancient texts and cultures are now the source and judge of the Hebrew Bible’ [p.89]. Strawn then considers three fundamental questions about Israelite religion: What are its sources? What is its locus? What is its content? He explains that despite the paradigm shift a new consensus on how to handle the sources has not emerged. Much work still can be seen as either archaeological or ‘tradition historical’. He argues that the challenge is to make the ‘or’ an ‘and’. On the matter of content, Strawn explains that increasingly two complementary loci are considered: the ‘official’ religion and ‘popular’ religion. Though framed in different ways as evolutionary (folk to cult) or as a result of societal power play, the modern interpreter faces a complex hermeneutical task. Strawn advocates the recognition of multiple loci which requires even more nuance and care. Closely related to these considerations is the question of the place occupied by theology and practice/ritual in defining the content of Israelite religion. Strawn concludes with a plea to unite belief and practice as an approach coherent with the nature of the Hebrew Bible itself.

Chapter 5: The Hebrew Bible and history (Marc Zvi Brettler, Duke University)

In this contribution history is defined as ‘a depiction of the past’ [p.109]. This helpfully prevents the clash between recent critical definitions of history with the more complex goals of ancient historians. When it comes to the Bible specifically its account of history is, according to Brettler, ‘a narrative that presents a past’ [p.110]. Brettler proceeds to demonstrate the importance of the past to the biblical authors. This interest in how things were different in the past and how this affects the present is shown to be present throughout the whole HB/OT. Although this reflection on the past is pervasive the different types of literature depict the past differently. The challenge of prose accounts of the past is that they differ immensely in nature, and the reason for their preservation is often opaque. Some poetic texts do indicate why they are referring to the past, for example Psalm 78 explains that the Exodus is recounted so that future generations might have confidence in God.

This contribution concludes with an exploration of how the diverse accounts of the past function. These include explaining the present, justifying a specific political position and for religious purposes. Because of the uncertainty of authorial/editorial intention/s and the frequently large distance between events and text, Brettler concludes that caution is needed in using the HB/OT as a historical source. The implications of this for the contemporary religious reader is beyond the scope of this chapter.

Part III: Methods and approaches

In this third Part of the book it is clear that the contributors though experts within a specific methodology, are committed to a broad approach which uses the best historical-critical, sociological and literary approaches in tandem.

Chapter 6: Historical-critical methods (John J. Collins, Yale Divinity School)

The origin and breadth of historical-critical methods are explored at the outset. Much of the chapter then explores the principle of criticism, the principle of analogy and the principle of correlation, after Ernst Troeltsch. The principle of autonomy—assumed in historical-critical enquiry post-Kant—is added as a fourth principle which typifies these methods. The nature of historical-critical enquiry is appraised by considering its limits and its critics. Collins concludes that the rather individualistic principle of autonomy must take account of the social nature of knowledge. More significantly the principle of analogy ‘should be understood as a pragmatic guide rather than a metaphysical dogma’ [p.143]. Collins rounds off his contribution by indicating how literary approaches have enriched historical-critical methods in recent and contemporary scholarship.

Chapter 7: Social science models (Victor H. Matthews, Missouri State University)

Matthews explains the multifaceted nature of such approaches as including sociolinguistic, rhetorical, economic, political and social aspects. He argues that such approaches are an asset to interpretation for recovering what life was like in ancient times. The themes of ‘identity and kinship’ and ‘honor and shame’ are explored with numerous insightful nuggets used to illustrate the meaning and value of sociological approaches. The concept of spatiality, in terms of a culture’s recognised places in which society’s members function or conceptualise things is explored. The brevity of this section is frustrating; although the basic idea is explained well the specific concepts of Firstspace, Secondspace and Thirdspace remain less clearly developed. The chapter ends very abruptly with an outline of the nature of discourse analysis.

Chapter 8: Literary approaches to the Hebrew Bible (Adele Berlin, University of Maryland)

Berlin opens her essay in a lively and engaging way by recapitulating what might now be viewed as three ‘puzzles’. The first puzzle is the peculiar fact that scholars ‘forgot’ that the Bible was literature for such a prolonged period. Berlin points to the convergence of the work of diverse scholars as the foundation for the rediscovery of the Bible as literature. This introduces the second puzzle which is the length of time over which scholars focused almost exclusively on narrative at the expense of other forms, especially poetry and legal texts. Berlin highlights a third puzzle, the initial antipathy between literary and historical critical enquiry. Having established the contemporary acceptance of literary approaches, Berlin helpfully focuses on the events of Genesis 34 for the rest of the chapter. The difficulty in providing a valid title to the events of this chapter hints at the fruitfulness of approaching this text as literature. This fruitfulness is clearly illustrated in the remaining pages.

Of the opening eight chapters, this is the one that contributes to the whole and sparkles in its own right. All of the previous chapters are solid helpful contributions but it is Berlin’s which has a freshness and vitality which takes it beyond the tight constraints of this edited volume.

In the next post the nine chapters which cover Subcollections and genres will be reviewed.


Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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